I’m listening to Nell Painter’s book “Old in Art School.” I highly recommend it. Dr. Painter, a very well-regarded historian, left her tenured position at Princeton to enroll in an undergraduate art program at Rutgers and, later, an M.F.A. program at the Rhode Island School of Design. This book, read by her, is her account of these experiences.
She describes the ups and downs of art school in vivid terms. She describes teachers who are sometimes supportive and sometimes unaccountably stupid — e.g., telling her she’d never be an artist. Her fellow students can be energetic and friendly but also inattentive and rude. The “art world” she describes seems hostile to traditional representational art, and sometimes I get the impression that the schools discourage her from appreciating that form of art. She is chastised, for example, for looking at things with “20th century eyes.” I find myself urging her not to abandon those eyes.
It’s not just her eyes that look backward; it’s her historian’s instinct too. At one point she says she wishes she’d gotten into Yale’s M.F.A. program, not only because it’s a great art school, but also because it’s part of a broader university with an art history and history department. Her training as a historian pushes her to put art in a broader context — to relate art history to “history history,” as she calls it.
I especially enjoy the autobiographical parts of the book: her experiences as an African-American woman who occasionally “lets her guard down”; her relationship with her aging parents; the way she uses libraries; her struggles to commute from Newark to Brunswick; her life in her own apartment, away from her husband, in Providence. I also like that her book has induced me to explore some of the African-American art that she admires.